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Standing Tall

By Harold Holzer
6/18/2009 • CWT LookingatLincoln

Lincoln sat for this unique photograph—“stood” would actually be a more accurate description—sometime in the summer of 1860. It was taken during that year’s presidential campaign, when most of the candidate’s encounters with artists—painters, sculptors and photographers alike—were meticulously chronicled by the local press or the lucky image-makers themselves. Someone should have made a record of this pose, too: the first full-length photo ever taken of the 6-foot-4 “Long Abraham.” Yet after nearly 150 years, almost nothing is known about this breathtaking image.

It must have been a challenge to whoever took it. His studio head clamp, or “immobilizer,” was evidently not long enough to reach all the way to Lincoln’s neck. One can glimpse its iron legs sticking out from behind the subject’s knees; it has obviously been propped on a box. But there is no other clue to help historians assign it to one of the cameramen who posed Lincoln in Illinois: The background, tablecloth and other props—the scrolled document and the book Lincoln dwarfs with his large hand—do not show up in any previous or subsequent pose.

Pioneer Lincoln photo historian Lloyd Ostendorf offered a guess in 1963. Since a copy of the picture was found in the papers of sculptor Henry Kirke Brown in 1931, he reasoned that Brown had commissioned it as a model for a statue. But there is no evidence that Brown ever created a sculpture that looked like this picture, or knew Lincoln well enough to order a photograph.

On the other hand, sculptor Leonard Wells Volk had access to Lincoln, making his famous life mask in March 1860 and visiting him in Springfield in May that year. More important, his plaster statue The Emancipator, produced 10 years later, bears an uncanny resemblance to this pose. In it, Lincoln holds a scroll, leaning on one leg and staring slightly to the right. Its origins have long eluded us because Volk imposed a beard on his model.

We still cannot be sure who took this photo, but its debt to Volk can be discerned from yet another clue: the way Lincoln holds his hands. They seem to replicate almost exactly the grip he assumed when Volk made a cast of them the day after his nomination—as if the sculptor wanted one more model to help him shape Lincoln in clay.

The evidence seems clear: Whoever took this mys­terious image of Lincoln did so for Volk.

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